18th April 2014
By Ruth Hayhurst and Barry Keevins
After her acquittal on all charges arising from last year’s Balcombe anti-fracking demonstrations, MP Caroline Lucas said the right to protest was being eroded and undermined. “Legitimate protest”, she said was being “criminalised by oppressive policing in an attempt to silence dissent.”
Britain’s only Green MP described the prosecution policy at Balcombe as perverse and the policing strategy as arbitrary and disproportionate. She said “the signal that it gives out to ordinary people is that you risk arrest simply by taking part in a peaceful protest”.
A total of 126 people were arrested at the protests outside Cuadrilla’s oil exploration site, leading to 114 charges. But with almost all the cases completed there have been only 27 convictions.
Miss Lucas, who was cleared yesterday on a public order charge and for obstructing the highway, said the police and Crown Prosecution Service had questions to answer over their decisions to carry on with court cases despite the expense and low conviction rate.
The CPS had an average conviction rate for 2013/14 of 85 per cent of all cases it brought to court. But it carried on with prosecutions from the Balcombe protests despite continuing acquittals.
- One District Judge asked “Is that it?” after seeing video evidence in one case which ended in acquittal
- Police officers admitted in court they had never heard of one of the acts they were being asked to enforce
- There have been no custodial sentences
- Fines and costs total less than £6,000
- More than 50 police officers have spent at least one day in court, while others have appeared by video link
Caroline Lucas said the number of convictions suggested the prosecution policy was arbitrary and not based in sufficient evidence. In an exclusive interview with InvestigatingBalcombeAndCuadrilla.com shortly before her trial concluded, Miss Lucas said:
“There was a fairly clear message being given out by the number of cases that were not resulting in convictions. It seems that the political point has been made at very high public expense not to mention everybody else’s time and resources and anxiety caused by the whole protest,” the MP said.
“A huge question is to be asked about the public interest and also the costs to the public purse. Cases should only be brought to court if there is a reasonable expectation that the conviction is possible. The high number of acquittals suggests that that groundwork hasn’t been done by the police, that the policing policy has been arbitrary and disproportionate.”
Miss Lucas said she was most concerned about policing policy. She said the way the police dealt with the protest with which she was involved was “entirely arbitrary”.
“There was a group of maybe 15 or 20 of us who were doing exactly the same thing at the same time”, she said. “Some were arrested and then one was subsequently de-arrested. Others were just moved away from the area and then just allowed to carry on. Others were arrested using extremely high profile and painful tactics including the pressure-pointing.”
Of the people brought to court:
- The majority had never been in trouble with the law before
- Half were from Sussex or neighbouring counties
- A third were aged over 40
- Yet Some people spent as many as 12 hours in police custody
- Early bail conditions excluded people from a 25 sq km area
Only 19 people were arrested during the Reclaim the Power camp period in August when police imposed conditions on protesters under Section 14 of the Public Order Act. No one has so far been convicted on a Section 14 charge. And yesterday, the judge at Miss Lucas’s trial ruled that the way the police imposed the conditions was invalid.
Caroline Lucas MP said: “I am not sure if there is a policy of the Crown Prosecution Service to keep taking cases to court, even though so many are resulting in acquittals. It seems a pretty perverse one because it does not reflect well on them either.
“But whatever the strategy is, I think it needs to be rethought because I think that there is no evidence that this is in the public interest and it is costing a huge amount of money and resources at a time when both are in short supply.
“It does raise in my mind the concern that this is just another tactic that is being used to try to persuade people against protesting.
“If others in the group see someone being arrested very early on or arrested in quite a high profile fashion then clearly that acts as a deterrent and then if charges are dropped it suggests that actually the police are using that as a way of simply trying to stop people from carrying out what is a human right to peacefully protest.
“And so that does raise to me big questions and seems to suggest that this another part of an overall strategy that we have seen from police over several years now, from student protests onwards, of trying simply to deter people from that right to protest.”
Supt Lawrence Hobbs of Sussex Police, said: “We worked with all sides to enable them all to meet their peaceful and lawful objectives, whether they were day-to-day commercial activities or protest.
“The operation was a difficult balancing act throughout and we have been variously reported as ‘caving in’ to protesters and accused of ‘overkill’ in the number of officers deployed.”
A spokesperson for the CPS said: “Only one charge was authorised by the CPS, the remainder were authorised by the police. Where the police charge an individual, the CPS will review the suitability of the charge and ensure that there is a realistic prospect of conviction and that it is in the public interest to proceed. The duty to review continues through the life of a case and the CPS will take account of developments as these cases progress through the courts. This applies to every case we prosecute without exception.”
Freelance journalist and translator Kathryn McWhirter, 59, lives within 500m of the drill site at Balcombe. The wine and travel specialist was sitting next to Caroline Lucas minutes before the MP was arrested.
“My attitude to the police changed over the summer,” she said. “It was a shock to me as a fairly establishment person. There was a lot of aggression from the police. I didn’t like being pushed around. They were acting like a private army for Cuadrilla. It is not just about Balcombe, it’s about the two thirds of this country that will be licensed for drilling. It is going to be a huge industrialisation of our countryside.”